In our sinfulness, we humans can be very quick to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s disturbing how many times somebody has politely thanked me for some inconsequential act of kindness and I’ve immediately become puffed up, thinking “yes I know, I am pretty special, aren’t I?” To my shame, I suspect that sometimes I even do those things in deliberate anticipation of the nice things people will say about me afterwards. It’s not just the praise of other people that we enjoy, however: don’t we often expect to impress God with our good behaviour? How often do we start thinking “God must be really pleased with me this week, I’ve done so well, he’s sure to bless me now!” When we fall into sin, often the thing that upsets us most is that our grounds for pride have been whisked away from under our feet, and instead we’re left feeling stupid, humiliated. We are prone to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride.
Jesus destroys such grounds for pride in one of his parables:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10)
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty‘”. It’s a staggering change of perspective, isn’t it? Even if you succeed in doing all that you were commanded to do, what are you boasting about? That was merely your duty! It was the least you could do, to do what you were told.
The stakes are really raised when you realise just how much God has required of us: firstly to love him, the Lord our God, with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our strength, all of our mind, and secondly to love our neighbour as ourselves. That’s a pretty comprehensive set of commandments with very little wiggle room. It leaves no scope for believing that our efforts to love and serve God and others are somehow exceptional, above and beyond the call of duty. So you battled your way through rush hour traffic in the pouring rain to go and do some shopping in a crowded supermarket on behalf of an elderly friend? Well done, but you haven’t loved her any more than you love yourself, nor have you loved God with anything more than all of your strength. You have only done what was your duty. Or you resisted that constant temptation that is daily nagging at you to give in, and instead you spent the evening in prayer and joyful meditation of God’s word? Terrific, but don’t for a minute think that in that moment you were loving God with anything more than all of your heart and soul.
Our trouble is that we measure ourselves against the standard of other people. We look at others, and we’re good at noticing how half-hearted they are in their love for God or their service of others. We see their reluctance to go out of their way, or their failure to notice somebody’s moment of need. Then we look at ourselves, and we ignore or make excuses for all of the failures in our own life, and we see only the good. And compared to what we’ve seen in others, sometimes our assessment of ourselves comes out looking pretty great. But that is not the standard we’re called to: God calls us to nothing short of perfection. We’re to be measured against the awesome purity of his own holiness – spotless and without blemish. It’s a standard that we can never attain – only one person who ever lived hit the mark, the Lord Jesus Christ – and even if we were to get near, what would we have done besides what was asked of us?
If you are trusting in your good works as grounds for pride – beware! We are but unworthy servants – even perfect obedience to God’s will is merely doing our duty and merits nothing from God in return.